Song of the Day: Movies in Music (Day One). “Anybody Seen A Knight Pass This Way? I Saw Him Playing Chess with Death Yesterday”.

Following his tenure in The Walker Brothers, Scott Walker’s four self-titled albums of the late 1960s cemented his critical reputation but also alienated most of his previous audience.  For many fans of Walker’s previous work in The Walker Brothers, Scott 4 (1969) was the final straw, so far removed was it from what his audience had come to expect of the artist in the earlier part of the decade.  Scott 4 was originally released under Walker’s real name, Noel Scott Engel, with the name ‘Walker’ not appearing on the album until it was re-released some years later, a conscious effort it would seem to further remove himself from whatever his audience might expect, thus allowing the artist to move into new creative territories.  The album was also the first Walker solo album to be completely comprised of his own material, with the previous three Scott albums all featuring covers of songs by Jacques Brel.  Scott 4 was so unpopular at the time of its release that it completely failed to chart and was deleted soon afterwards, triggering an emotional and artistic crisis from which it would take the artist years to recover.  Scott 4 is now rightly seen as a classic and one of Walker’s strongest works, with musicians including David Bowie and Radiohead even citing it as a major influence.

The opening track of Scott 4, The Seventh Seal, is a straight yet highly poetic retelling of the 1958 Ingmar Bergman film of the same name.  Bergman’s The Seventh Seal tells of life in a 14th century Swedish village experiencing the cataclysmic effects of the Black Death. The Seventh Seal highlights the very worst shortcomings of religion, questioning its insufficient explanations of human suffering, the lack of proof regarding the existence of God, the witch hunts undertaken by the church, the immorality of the clergy and the way in which religious leaders manipulate believers into undertaking immoral tasks.

In The Seventh Seal, disillusioned knight Antonius Block and his squire Jons return home after ten years fighting in The Crusades to discover that Sweden is being torn apart by the plague (“Anybody hear of plague in this town, The town I’ve left behind was burned to the ground”).  In the film, Block meets Death and challenges him to a chess match believing that he can prevent his fate (“Anybody seen a knight pass this way?, I saw him playing chess with Death yesterday”).

In the space of a five minute song, The Seventh Seal uses the full storyline of the film.  The song gives four of its nine verses to the scene in which Block goes to the confessional.  Death, dressed as a priest, takes position on the other side of the grille.  Block tells the figure on the other side of the grille that his life has been futile and without meaning and that he wants to perform one meaningful deed (“My life’s a vain pursuit of meaningless smiles”).  Upon revealing the chess strategy that will save his life, Block discovers that the person who he thought was a priest is Death, who promises to remember the tactics (“He knelt to confess, The face within the booth was Mr. Death …”).

Additionally, we find references to the scene in which Block speaks to a young woman who has been condemned to be burnt alive for fraternising with the devil (“A young girl on a stake her face framed in flames cried, I’m not a witch God knows my name”).  Later in the song, there are lyrics based upon the final move in the chess game which seals Block’s fate (“The knight hung his head, And said you’ve won I’ve nothing left to play”) before a lyrical depiction of the final scene of the film in which Block and his followers are led away over the hills in a solemn dance of death after Block loses the game of chess to Death (“Their hands held as one, Solemnly danced toward the dawn …”).

Walker’s The Seventh Seal takes the subject matter of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and plays it out in a song complete with some of the most effective tambourine playing you will ever hear on a record, swooping strings, mariachi style trumpet that wouldn’t sound out of place on a western soundtrack, church bells and a male voice choir, all pulled together by the operatic baritone of Walker’s unique and much celebrated voice.  Like much of the material on the Scott albums, The Seventh Seal is a work of cinematic scope and vision rarely matched by any other artist.